Sunday, December 30, 2007

Where is the Infinite?

Now, this is the real question, the one everyone wants and needs an answer to. It's all very well to say that each person has a need for the Infinite, that we can read it like graffiti all over desperate adult behaviors (everything from addictions to preoccupations with trends, from serial relationships to grasping for power, from filling our short supply of free hours with diversions to play-acting moods we don't actually experience, from beefing ourselves up with various kinds of knowledge to pretending to ourselves that we we already have everything we need). But what use is this self-knowledge if we find ourselves in a corridor lined with doors, all of which are locked?

I'm reminded of Kafka's parable of the man at the gate ("Before the Law"):

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper.

To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. "It is possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not at the moment." Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him."

These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter.

The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with a statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything."

During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inexhaustibly from the gateway of the Law.

Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experience in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage. "What do you want to know now?" asks the doorkeeper; "you are insatiable."

"Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, he roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."

In this parable, the Law really is the law -- justice, even in human terms. The parable has the feeling of reaching for the divine, for divine reality, though, because the gate is such a pregnant symbol and because the man from the country is described as "insatiable." In fact, the reason why the parable has such force is that the man is insatiable, vigilant, faithful to his desire, on the one hand, and entirely incapable of entering through an open gate, on the other. There is something the man desires more than he desires admittance to the Law -- he desires that the doorkeeper give him permission. The parable describes a conflict, a tension, a drama, and we cannot experience conflict, tension or drama with an abstract concept -- only with a person. The drama plays itself out between the two men in the story. What is it that the man from the country really wants? He wants to hear the word "yes."

The Infinite abides, not in any abstract concept -- not even in Love!!! -- but in a word, in a person. To feed this man's insatiable hunger, it would not be enough to pass through a thousand gates, if at each one he would meet a man who would tell him, "no."

But this is the most interesting part -- he does not necessarily need the doorkeeper to say yes to anything beyond pointing him through the open gate. He doesn't need the doorkeeper to say, "Yes, you may have me, body and soul. Yes, I will love you unconditionally." He only needs the doorkeeper to say, "Yes, that is the way. Go in, walk through."

The tragedy of the parable is that the doorkeeper is as unrelenting as the man from the country is insatiable. The most tragic moment is when the doorkeeper tells the man that he is accepting his bribes, just so the man will feel as if he had tried everything. But this is precisely what life does to us all the time! All of our attempts to feed or assuage our need for the Infinite are met with one "no" after another. Even, most tragically, for many who stand before the gates of religion. I would be a liar if I didn't admit to this fact. This world is full of people who say, "no." We have all of us run this particular experiment under all kinds of conditions, controlling for millions of variables, with the same results.

So, where can we find the "yes"? This word is written into the structure of things. We can begin to hear it whispered when we ask ourselves why there is something and not nothing. Looking at reality (stars, moons, ferns, the wing of a bird, cool water, the petal of a crocus in the snow) and asking, really asking, "Why?" helps us to discern the word "yes." The word resides even more powerfully inside a seed (the smaller the better) and then when we begin to imagine how many seeds there are in the world. But none of this would be enough for us unless we could hear this "yes" on the lips of another person.

So, I will say it for you: "Yes, this gate, the one you are standing in front of that was made only for you, go through it! This is your life, you have permission to live it! Get up off your stool, and invite the doorkeeper to come in with you. If he won't come, blow him a kiss and be on your way."

You only need one thing more -- your own yes.


kabloona said...

I haven't looked at my Bob Dylan blog in a long time, not until your comment. My older, archived? posts are not showing. Either I don;t know how to access them or Blogger made them disappear. I mention this because in the beginning of the blog, most of the posts were about His Bobness.

Suzanne said...

I didn't see your archived posts on Dylan -- but I hope you do find them -- I'd love to read them!

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."